Heads up! If you haven’t read this book, don’t let me spoil you.
What Maisie Knew was my first Henry James book that I’ve read, and I couldn’t find a reason why I was putting him off for so long, until I started reading this book. James has a reputation of being tough and I arrogantly underestimated the comprehensibility of his prose, after reading Joyce earlier this year. But he is difficult, and worthwhile.
James’s sentences are long, with meandering clauses that take you to different corners of the character’s thoughts. You can fit four or five different ideas within the same sentence, which also connect to the next. The following paragraphs often referred to the last, and the use of the subjective pronouns can be ambiguous, which I think is deliberate and sometimes makes us as lost as Maisie is trying to figure out who is the subject in question.
But this is the style which makes the book unique — that the omniscient narrator frames the thoughts of Maisie as she would have thought it — beautifully writing the contradictions between new knowledge and previous knowledge, and the naiveté of a child against adult situations, especially where sex is concerned. We can assume what happens between the lines, but that’s where Maisie lives — in the periphery of the lives of her parents and step-parents. Maisie lives in the margins.
Maybe there are worse parents in real life, but I couldn’t think of more horrible parents in literature than Ida and Beale Farange. These guys are the epitome of selfishness, amongst other things. Maisie was for a while, a shuttlecock between these two parties, being thrown from one parent to the next and not even. Her caretakers are people who in the end, look after her, all of them flawed in their own way.
What James created with Maisie is surprisingly a smutty little book, dense with innuendos and infidelities. The parents are plain dirty sluts, their partners no better, and there are a lot of other punters that like to get their fingers dirty in the honeypot. No, there are no explicit sex scenes here, but it is everywhere — almost to the basis of the book. And ironically, this is what Maisie doesn’t know, until perhaps towards the end.
It is not, however, Maisie’s parents who are portrayed in the most detail and the best portrayed. The meat of the characterisation is on Maisie and her guardians: Sir Claude, Mrs Beale and Miss Wix, all of them fascinating in their own ways not because of their strengths but because of their weaknesses. Sir Claude has a “plastic” personality, easily swayed by the currents of wayward suggestions — he is a remnant of the aristocratic class that cannot think for himself. Mrs Beale, also prone to her passions as much as Sir Claude is. And Mrs Wix, hopelessly enamoured with Sir Claude and being poor, is pretty much a punching bag for Ida.
In fact, money is a huge part of the book. Maisie’s sustenance comes from an inheritance from a deceased relative, and not much from her parents and step-parents. While they are her guardians, the question of who can support Maisie is a sticky one throughout the book. She is a tool for spite against her parents and step-parents — being handed over and taken following this purpose. There is an unbearable scene when Maisie’s father, Beale, tried to sway her to come to America with him and his mistress, and when he found that she genuinely did not want to go, he practically disowned her. Sometimes we don’t know whether Maisie’s real parents really wanted her in the end. Ida, as far as we know, feigned sickness in order to extract her from Sir Claude.
The relationships that spin around Maisie’s existence is tumultuous, and she’s smack bang in the middle. It is not until towards the end of the book that she finds her voice, to make a decision of her own. And I am speaking about forcing Sir Claude to give up Mrs Beale, not her last minute jump ship to Mrs Wix. This decision was profound, as she knew that in the end, not of them will spite each other. As they had no means to support themselves, they will need their respective sugar mommies and daddies to support them — a precarious situation.
Adults in this novel are just frikkin plain horrible people, and yes, Maisie deserves better. The ending leaves us wanting: we don’t know what will happen to Mrs Wix and Maisie as they sail back to England from Boulogne. Mrs Wix, an old governess who really cannot educate Maisie unless it is through the medium of gossip and romance novels do not have a promising career herself. But it is perhaps Maisie, with her iron-forged childhood and newfound maturity who can manage her own situation for the better.